The rise and rise of remote exams

Graham Hambly looks at how the professional accountancy bodies have coped with the ‘new normal’ for exams.

The realisation of just how Covid-19 would turn accountancy education upside down was slow to hit the profession.

One of the first events to be cancelled was QB Connect London. The Intuit Quickbooks flagship conference was due to start on 4 March, and would normally attract around 1,500 delegates. The cancellation surprised many, but was a small precursor of what lay ahead. Accountex moved its May exhibition to November as the full force of the pandemic hit. However, it later decided to bite the bullet, and has rescheduled the accountancy and finance expo for 12-13 May 2021.

For PQ accountancy students Covid-19 first created havoc for those taking face-to-face classes. Those classrooms have been effectively moved online. Kaplan Financial suspended all its UK classroom course and computer-based exams on 17 March. Students were moved onto live online recording. Meanwhile, both the AAT and ACCA were telling its students they were still planning and preparing for summer exam sittings at their centres.

On 19 March, the ICAEW was the first to break cover and said it had taken the difficult decision to cancel the June sittings for its professional exams, and was moving the advanced exams to August.

Assessments suspended

AAT then announced all assessments were suspended from Sunday 22 March. Some four days later ACCA said it was cancelling June exams in the UK, Ireland, Western Europe and the Americas. More regions would follow.

There was some good news. On 27 March, CIMA revealed its students would be able to take their exams remotely (at home) for the first time. It helped that its partner is Pearson Vue, who already provide such services in the US. Another accountancy body that has been ahead of the curve is CIPFA (the public sector body). It has been running remote exams quite successfully for several years now.

In early April ICAEW agreed with Pearson to temporarily run its Certificate level exam remotely. Fast-forward to mid-May and both ACCA and AAT unveiled moves to remote exams. ACCA is targeting June for its lower level exams, and is running pilots for several higher-level exams in July. AAT will have remote invigilation for some of its assessments available from August 2020. Then, in late May it confirmed that assessments were back, and would be ‘available’ from Monday 29 June. With strict social distancing in place how this will work in the ‘new reality’ remains to be seen. AAT is, however, the only body to give PQs a three-month membership extension because of the pandemic. 

The real problem, however, for AAT and ACCA is that their revenue base is hugely dependent of the monies provided by their PQ students, in the form of subscription and repeat exam fees. Yes, ACCA has 227,332 members, but it also has 544,446 students and affiliates. And ACCA is looking at rising costs, so come December some of those ACCA exams will cost between £173 to £200 each to sit at the final level.

The bodies have moved remarkedly quickly to introduce a robust and secure way of using the latest technology in these enable exams at home (or in another location). It will mean minimal disruption to student’s training in what have been extraordinary times.

They, and I, believe they have enough systems in place to ensure the ‘rigour, security and integrity’ of the new exam system. The checks involve biometrics, artificial intelligence and recording.

The big test of how robust the new systems are will be what happens when things start opening up again. AAT, I think, still needs the further education sector to completely open for business to run all its assessments successfully. Whether it will still plough resources into remote exams will be interesting to see.

For the other bodies the move might be more hit and miss. The bodies will probably offer both – home exams and exams at centres. Connectivity and comfort will be the key motivators for choosing which route to take.

The pandemic has not been good for many things, but it may have helped transform the way accountancy students learn and are examined, probably achieving something that would have taken another five to 10 years to get to.

• Graham Hambly is the Editor of PQ magazine and a member of HMRC’s Agent Strategy working group

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